Model this is songwriting becoming more complex?

by on August 6, 2017 at 1:16 pm in Data Source, Music | Permalink

In the 1960s, an average hit song on the Billboard Top 10 had an average of 1.87 writers and 1.68 publishers each year. Songwriting duos were common, and creativity a simpler endeavor…

During the LP era (60s-80s), the number of songwriters and publishers on hit songs didn’t rise as dramatically.  Based on the Songdex analysis, in the 70s, hit songs on the Billboard Top 10 had an average of 1.95 writers and 2.04 publishers each.  During the 80s, the number of average publishers in top 10 songs slightly rose to 2.06.  The number of writers remained the same.

In the 90s, the number spiked to an average of 3.13 writers and 3.49 publishers per top 10 song.  Incidentally, the change coincides with the rise of digital music formats, such as the MP3.  Napster also launched in 1999.  All of which ushered in an era of massive data overload (and that’s before streaming took hold).

Consumers quickly adopted digital music formats, resulting in a “market need for registration, licensing and reporting systems,” says Music Reports.  In the 2000s, Billboard Top 10 hits had an average of 3.50 writers and 4.96 publishers each year.

This past decade, streaming has emerged as a major source of revenue for record labels.  Using its Songdex catalog registry, Music Reports noted that Billboard Top 10 hits saw an average of 4.07 writers and six publishers.

Here is the full story, I am glad Beethoven never did much co-authoring, with apologies to Diabelli.

1 derek August 6, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Unlistenable drek produced by committee. I wonder if this has anything to do with the depression in youth described in an earlier post?

2 dan1111 August 7, 2017 at 3:48 am

There was a lot of unlistenable drek produced in the 60s, 70s, 80s, etc. It has just been forgotten.

3 anomdebus August 6, 2017 at 1:31 pm

I don’t think it is a committee per se, but that anybody who punches it up a bit is demanding to be recognized(and paid).

4 Moo cow August 6, 2017 at 1:55 pm

Kind of like how many “Executive Producers” there are in the credits of a successful TV series.

5 Ray Lopez August 6, 2017 at 3:27 pm

+1, a sort of vanity assignment. Instead of a behind the scenes assignment, the frontman puts their name on the credits as a collaborator, for vanity and publicity purposes. Since pop music these days is synthesized in the studio and lip synced in public performances, it makes sense for the singer to try and get false recognition for being a creative talent.

6 Phil August 6, 2017 at 11:14 pm

True but interestingly moral rights give authors the right not to have authorship falsely attributed. Moral rights are not transferrable, so the original writer could try to avoid such practices. Not sure whether US authors have moral rights. At the end it’s a bargaining and money question but many writers do not no the long-term implications of splitting publishing shares.

7 Pshrnk August 6, 2017 at 10:47 pm

“anybody who punches it up a bit is demanding to be recognized(and paid).”

HellYeah! How ya gonna get tenure unless ya got plenty o publications?

8 Thiago Ribeiro August 6, 2017 at 1:32 pm

“In the 90s, the number spiked to an average of 3.13 writers and 3.49 publishers per top 10 song.”
Todays’s music is stupid, a product made by committees and focus groups. Call me a relic, call me what you will,
say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill. Today’s music ain’t got the same soul. I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll. Still like that old time rock ‘n’ roll . That kind of music just soothes the soul. I reminisce about the days of old with that old time rock ‘n’ roll.

9 Yancey Ward August 7, 2017 at 9:56 am

Even better, Bob Seger was born and raised in favela in Rio.

10 Syltty August 8, 2017 at 11:25 am

I bet everyone can agree that the best music was composwd when they were teens 😉

Older is just too simple or boring and newer stuff is alway too commercial.

11 Millian August 6, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Two technological shocks: Samples add authors. Hip hop / rap writing is more complex, based on combining drum machine beats with a lyric right from day 1.

12 RohanV August 6, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Why are publishers lumped together with writers? Should they not be independent entities?

I mean, the number of publishers can be explained by the increased number of mediums. Internet, streaming, Apple store, foreign markets, etc. But I don’t see what that has to do with writers of songs.

13 DanC August 6, 2017 at 5:06 pm

You’re confusing the music industry definition of “publisher” with “retailer.” Music publishers buy copyrights from writers by discounting future cash flows and assuming the risk of their upfront investment. Each songwriter is associated with a publisher (although multiple co-writers of the same song may have the same publisher). And some songwriters are “self-published,” which means that they have not mortgaged their copyright.

14 ohwilleke August 7, 2017 at 4:48 pm


15 chuck martel August 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm

On average 1.67 of the writers per top 10 song are simply there to roll joints and 2.03 of the publishers order pizzas and serve ice cream.

16 Rich Berger August 6, 2017 at 5:21 pm

So there’s a great stagnation in joint rolling? I can’t believe they haven’t improved on the simple machines of my youth.

17 Rich Berger August 6, 2017 at 5:26 pm
18 Rich Berger August 6, 2017 at 5:28 pm
19 Andrew August 6, 2017 at 1:49 pm

How does this account for sampling? That might be what’s going on here, rather than complexity.

As an example, the songwriting credits for the Kanye West song “Famous” include Jimmy Webb, who wrote the Nina Simone song sampled on the track, and Winston Riley, who wrote the Sister Nancy song sampled:

20 Justin August 6, 2017 at 2:04 pm

Empirical analysis of a million pop songs disagrees.

(Tyler commented on this post IIRC)

21 Urso August 8, 2017 at 3:31 pm

This is very plausible, pop music has been “solved” to a large degree, insofar as they are pretty good at knowing you have to have x, y, and z to make a hit record. Of course this has always been true, to a degree, but they’re much better at it now. Just like sabermetrics risks rendering baseball boring.

22 rayward August 6, 2017 at 2:32 pm

I don’t understand the vitriol when it comes to today’s pop music. How much is that doggie in the window. I’m Henry the Eighth I am, Henry the Eighth I am I am. I’m amazed at the variety and quality of today’s music, all within reach of consumers for a small monthly fee. In the past, quality and variety of music wasn’t even available to most consumers (other than those residing in places like NYC). Everybody, no matter where they reside, has access to variety and quality. As for pop, is Taylor Swift worse than the idols of the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties? Not really. The difference today is that consumers don’t have to listen to Taylor Swift. Not that they don’t want to not listen to Taylor Swift. Criticism of pop music today is actually criticism of peoples’ taste in music. Today Big Data is used to capture what will appeal to lowbrow taste in music. And lowbrow taste in books, magazines, film, politicians, clothing, religion, you name it. Criticism should be directed at the so-called tech sector for this advancement.

23 Apso August 6, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Agreed. I didn’t appreciate a lot of the effort that goes into some of these songs until I started listening to Switched on Pop. I was too lazy to apply the disciplined listening I used on classical to he stuff on the radio. Some of it is crap. Some of it is quite good. I don’t think collaboration is a bad thing.

24 rayward August 6, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Then again, listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash from the late 1960s. Absolute perfection, in the music, the lyrics, the harmony.

25 Larry Siegel August 6, 2017 at 3:48 pm

…or the Mills Brothers. Or Ludwig van Beethoven. There is such a thing as quality, and it isn’t produced in focus groups or by committee.

26 dan1111 August 7, 2017 at 3:49 am

+1. Excellent point. There is more good music being produced now than ever before.

27 Deek August 7, 2017 at 5:53 am

A friend of mine once ranted that Rihanna’s “Umbella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.” lyric was lazy songwriting. He was a huge fan of The Beatles so I just referred him to the choruses of Hey Jude, Yellow Submarine and so on.

I think Max Martin is a bona fide genius, not a word I throw around lightly. I’d like to think that history will be very kind to him.

28 Zig August 7, 2017 at 6:46 pm

I don’t get the umbrella song in particular but otherwise agree Max Martin has to be special to write so many hits from such and obscure background.

29 Urso August 8, 2017 at 3:32 pm

I think the explanation is simple – the crappy songs of yesteryear get forgotten. The crappy songs of today are still with us.

30 apso August 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Trial Balloon! I stipulate that if Mozart were alive today:

1. He would write popular music, rather than string quartets, since that is where the audience is by definition;
2. He would outsource most of the electronic work to others, I cannot envision him obsessing over the timbre of the snare drum like those folks do; and
3. He would not be a “songwriter”, but rather a recording artist of some kind.

In short, he would more closely resemble Justin Timberlake than Michael Torke. Mozart and Timberlake were also products of sociopathic managers, Disney vs. Mozart’s own father.

Reply, and give me the thrashing I richly deserve!

31 DanC August 6, 2017 at 5:23 pm

I think you beg the question by assuming that someone with Mozart’s particular combination of talents would be encouraged as a musician at all in 2017. He might be given medicine to treat his personality disorder and encouraged in math or science. On the other hand, I wouldn’t discount the extent to which composers of “classical music” see themselves in an unbroken line leading back to Apollo, and if so, there’s a ideological difference between someone to writes for the largest audience versus a torchbearer. I think both kinds of composers have always existed and will always exist.

32 Deek August 7, 2017 at 5:57 am

If you think that Timberlake’s sociopathic manager was Disney they you’ve obviously never heard of Lou Pearlman.

33 Apso August 8, 2017 at 7:10 am

Very true- I was trying to compare the Disney Talent Combine to Mozart’s father. I do not have extensive Timberlake knowledge. If Mozart was born to the same Dad in 1980, how would he turn out? Fair-to-middling odds that his parents would be divorced I think. Hard to tell what else would be different, but this is my best working theory.

34 Zig August 7, 2017 at 6:52 pm

Justin Timberlake is an entertainer who does song and dance (and acting and comedy even) more like the African American tradition so I see no connection

35 Apso August 8, 2017 at 7:15 am

I see the African American tradition as incidental, its just the water that the fish are swimming in nowadays. What happens to someone with impeccable melody-writing skill and virtuosity on their instrument of choice today? Where does that person go?

36 Bill August 6, 2017 at 4:59 pm

The explanation for the number of writer credits is that contributing writers got smarter and hired lawyers.*

*If you use this comment elsewhere without my consent expect to see my lawyers.

37 Lanigram August 6, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Today’s pop music is gahbage!

My teens listen to music from the 60s to CE, but prefer anything to CE pop.

There is hope.

Neither like jazz. 🙁

38 Zig August 7, 2017 at 6:59 pm

Today there is more access to great pop music (using term broadly) than ever with steaming and internet radio. The artists themselves are also in control of their music and distribution so it is very diverse. It all takes a bit of effort but I think it may be better than ever now

39 Steve Sailer August 6, 2017 at 5:20 pm

The business economics of pop stardom are surprisingly murky. I know vastly more about how much baseball players are paid and why than I do about pop stars and their money. Simple questions like how much did George and Ringo make relative to John and Paul seldom seem to come up.

40 Jeff R August 6, 2017 at 8:34 pm

Good point.

41 msgkings August 7, 2017 at 1:24 am

I don’t see why that’s a surprise, the business of sports is far more public.

42 Steve Sailer August 7, 2017 at 1:47 am

Sure, but that’s why I’m asking: I’m encouraging research into rock star economics. Rock stars were just about the most famous people in the world over the last three dozen years of the 20th Century, but despite all the stuff I know about them, I don’t know much about how they got paid. I know a fair amount anecdotally about the legal aspects of their contracts, such as Creedence Clearwater versus Fantasy Records or Elvis letting Col. Parker have 50%, but I really don’t know much about the economics within groups. (I suspect rock musicians tended to know less than they should have, as well, especially when they were starting out.)

43 msgkings August 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Oh I definitely agree, it’s murky because the suits want it that way. I guess the difference is sports stars have agents who want things to be as public as possible, to create bidding wars and help their players by getting the fans in on things. Musicians starting out don’t often have agents or managers, and when they do often the manager wants to keep things quiet as much as the labels.

Also there’s a little different ethos there, music is supposed to be about the music maaaaan, not selling out for cash (although that’s been changing recently). The top music acts have their earnings show up on lists all the time, you can pretty easily see how much Taylor Swift and Jay-Z make each year on lists produced by various publications. It’s the middling and lower paid acts you don’t really know much about.

44 Zig August 7, 2017 at 7:21 pm

One interesting recent phenomena is because of the internet, new (and some old) artists are no longer dependent on record producers and labels to get their music out

Chance the Rapper I believe won a Grammy and did not have a record label. He also had the first streamed album to chart on Billboard. It’s a whole new world and although we can’t be sure the exact figures Chance in the good old days would not have made much money yet

Wilco is another band I love (best American band of the last 20 years) that gave up on record labels some time ago. They just keep putting albums themselves and make money from touring and streaming

45 JMCSF August 6, 2017 at 6:31 pm

People are always biased for the music they grew up with.

Is Tyler really suggestion that the quality of songwriting is directly tied to the number of people involved? The more people the worse the song must be! What an obviously arbitrary and stupid measure.

The reality is that there is so much specialization today that it’s just so much more likely to have multiple people involved.

46 MMK August 6, 2017 at 7:15 pm
47 Urso August 8, 2017 at 3:34 pm

Ah, the Shakesperian brilliance of “scaramouche! scaramouche! will you do the fandango!”

48 celestus August 6, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Probably not, reading level for popular music has fallen a full grade level (to 2.5-3.0) in the last ten years

My model is that as streaming extremizes a winner take all music market, the marginal revenue from a small delta in song quality increases and it becomes more worth it to pay for that contribution.

49 Deek August 7, 2017 at 5:59 am

“as streaming extremizes a winner take all music market”

Does it though?

50 dan1111 August 7, 2017 at 6:16 am

It seems like the opposite of the truth.

51 Jeff R August 6, 2017 at 8:38 pm

TGS. The low hanging fruit of pop music has been picked over the last 50 years or so, and thus doing anything remotely original these days requires more input and more collaboration than in previous decades. That’s my take.

52 JB August 6, 2017 at 9:07 pm

How do people get paid for the work they do on songs? Is it possible this is just the end result of a system that pays songwriters much more than anyone else? If the only people making any money are songwriters then the only way to collaborate with other good musicians is if you are all songwriters together. Or perhaps it is the reverse? Maybe only the most successful performers are able to sell recordings/streams/etc? So now it is much more rational for a talented songwriter to write for those performers than themselves. This has also been happening for years but mostly due to age (older performer decides to write for younger performers instead of recording/performing his/her own stuff).

Also, maybe there was just as much collaboration in the past, but now credit is obtainable whereas in the past it was based more on power dynamics. Some people accuse Beyonce of demanding songwriting credit for small contributions in order for her to record/perform the song. What does a writing credit actually mean? Can some amount of production or arrangement be considered writing?

53 Steve Sailer August 7, 2017 at 1:52 am

Here’s a question somebody could research pretty easily by scraping data from IMDB: what are the trends over time in movies in the number of directors and writers.

My guess is, for example, that it is more common for one individual to fill both director and writer today, such as only Christopher Nolan being credited as director and writer of “Dunkirk.” It seems like the auteur theory sort of conjured the reality it claimed to describe into being. But that’s just my impression: somebody could study this quantitatively pretty easily.

I’m also under the impression that mixed sex writing teams are down since the 1930s or 1940s, while two brothers working together are up since the Epstein twins finished “Casablanca.”

54 Freddo August 7, 2017 at 4:09 am

A lot of hits are produced according to standardized process, see for example

But another part may be due to how royalties are divided (see Writers and publishers are legally mandated a part of the royalties, so more people want in on this revenue stream.

55 GHQ August 7, 2017 at 4:26 am

All or most of your questions about music publishing and song writing business are covered in great detail on this youtube videos and others linked to it. I have no connection to it, simply saying it’s informative (speaking as someone who used to be in the music publishing business, but is now very out of date) if you have the time to watch all or some of them.

For sample: Why so many writers? Because that’s how many it takes to write a potential HIT song that a bankable artist wants to cut, or that a publisher, music director etc, is willing to pitch. If fewer writers could write the hits, they’d obviously be doing it that way.

Songs are more complicated now than they used to be. Not better, but different, more hooky, and more complicated.

56 Wick August 7, 2017 at 9:54 am

Interesting debate. Rather than music getting more complex, as stated by the increased number of writers, I think the actual opposite is happening. Today’s “popstars” rarely compose/write their own music. Professional songwriters compose most of today’s top hits, but the official artist that releases the track may opine on one portion of the track and subsequently, that artist is now one of the writers of that song – even though that artist might have changed one lyric (for example).

57 Tom Warner August 7, 2017 at 10:19 am

This has very little to do with how songs are written. Simply most groups these days give writing credit to each and every group member for each and every song, regardless of who really wrote anything, kind of like Lennon and McCartney did but for the whole band. Then they each have their own publisher, unlike Lennon-McCartney who always published jointly.

Things are bit different for top pop acts who usually have pro outside songwriters, often a pure songwriter plus a producer who both take songwriting credit and as part of the deal give credit to the star whether or not he/she wrote anything. This type only matters statistically if you’re narrowly focusing on the top pop hits.

58 Tom Warner August 7, 2017 at 10:29 am

To understand this trend you need to look at the underlying economics. For the vast output of indies and star wannabes, songwriting is not economically important, so the opportunity cost of sharing it is small. At the very top where it is a money maker, the producer and star have the power to demand a cut.

59 Diego Salazar August 7, 2017 at 11:38 am


I imagine you’ve read John Seabrook’s The Song Machine:

If not, go ahead. It’s very good. And it does a great work explaining how pop songs writing has changed particularly since the 90s.

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